What Kind of European Future Do Romanians Want?

On the Eve of Elections, Voters and Candidates Alike Are Vague on the Issues

What Kind of European Future Do Romanians Want? | Zocalo Public Square • Arizona State University • Smithsonian

On Sunday, June 9, Romanians will vote at both the local and European levels. But they’re confused, disillusioned, and indifferent, argues EU affairs expert Tana Foarfă. The Arc de Triomphe in Bucharest is illuminated in the EU colors. Photo by Andreea Alexandru.

To be Romanian is to live as a denizen of your city or town, of Romania, and of Europe.

In 2024, almost 19 million of us will choose elected officials to represent us at all three of these levels: 33 new members of the European Parliament (MEPs), 3,000 new mayors across Romania, 588 new members of the Romanian Parliament, and 1 new president.

So why is there fatigue, rather than campaign excitement? And are the Romanian and European contests functioning in opposition to each other—distracting citizens from the important issues in both sets of races—or are they mutually beneficial, because they’ll bring so many people to the polls?

Thus far, the current Romanian government seems to have abandoned meaningful debate about the issues the country faces. Projects are stagnating. There is no real strategy to deal with the Ukraine war at our border. There is no plan to modernize the Romanian economy in a digital era, or industry and agriculture in the era of green transition. Candidates merely praise the work of party colleagues, and criticize the opposition, avoiding concrete proposals or explanations of their positions. Flattering photographs on social media encourage us to vote for candidates, without giving us a reason why.

Even electoral debates are missing. Instead, politicians secure spots on popular television shows and list their achievements from a safe seat. In fact, the first and probably only real electoral debate between the Romanian candidates in the EU elections was organized by my NGO, Europuls,  and Democracy International, which took place at the recent Global Forum on Modern Direct Democracy*.

The EU elections, meanwhile, will lead to the renewal of the European Parliament, the institution that adopts EU laws. They will also indirectly reshape the European Commission, the bureaucratic body that proposes EU laws.

According to the latest Eurobarometer survey, 74% of Romanians say they intend to vote in the EU elections, 19 percentage points more than those who said they intended to vote in 2019. It will be interesting to see whether the intention will translate into actual presence and whether the turnout will be higher than in 2019.

Romanians are distracted from the high stakes these elections represent for us, and for the whole European continent. Even now, 17 years after becoming an EU member state, our country doesn’t fully embrace its responsibility to the project.

The decision to hold Romania’s local elections on the same day as EU elections sparked heated debate here. The ruling coalition has cited several reasons for the move: reducing administrative costs (though leaders have provided no figures to indicate any likely savings), keeping local constituents engaged and avoiding electoral fatigue over what would otherwise have been four rounds of elections, and even counteracting extremism. The opposition argues that merging elections is anti-democratic and undermines small parties’ chances.

In practice, the local contests seem to overshadow the EU elections, as EU parliament candidates campaign in their districts, and often promote candidates for local elections instead of talking about EU-level priorities.

Romanian citizens seem confused, disillusioned, and indifferent. Because they don’t know what distinguishes the people and parties on their ballot, the European elections here seem more like a popularity contest rather than a political one. That’s unfortunate because the story of this election is mainly one about the future of Romania as part of the European family—a family in which we have lived for nearly 20 years, and which makes our lives better every day.

An EU infusion of more than 60 billion euros into the Romanian economy financed essential reforms in our public administration and justice systems, as well as investments in roads, railways, schools, and hospitals. EU values of democracy, human rights, and rule of law have made us more inclusive and tolerant—a more modern society. Being part of the EU single market has increased our GDP. Romanians can travel and work throughout the EU; our goods, services, and money move around almost as freely as within a single country. EU membership means we have no cellular roaming costs or extra fees for credit and debit card purchases within the EU, full protection of our personal data, and a guaranteed four weeks of paid leave per year. We benefit from the unified emergency and health insurance systems for all 27 EU countries. We have enjoyed fast access to vaccines during the pandemic, great food quality standards, and the strictest environmental targets in the world.

Romanians are distracted from the high stakes these elections represent for us and for the whole European continent. Even now, 17 years after becoming an EU member state, our country doesn’t fully embrace its responsibility to the project.

With 33 seats in the European Parliament, Romania is the sixth most powerful country in the EU. Forty percent of Romania’s children live in poverty and social exclusion. By leaning in to the European project, we can rescue those kids by helping to erase social and economic disparities across EU regions and by helping the EU achieve economic and climate targets.

We can influence geopolitics, too. Strategically positioned on the Black Sea, sharing a border with Ukraine, and a NATO member, Romania could play a key role in resolving the war in Ukraine, and planning for that country’s reconstruction. Romania strongly promotes the rapid integration of our neighbor Moldova into the European Union. This is essential because the faster Moldova transitions toward the organization, the faster its citizens can escape poverty, and Russian threats to their freedom and resources.

But accomplishing all of this requires that we elect candidates that understand the world, as well as the EU agenda and how Romania could benefit from it. And we need responsible and informed citizens to elect them. As a Romanian citizen, I would like to ask our candidates for the European Parliament about these issues before going to the polls and casting my ballot. These are questions that will shape the EU agenda in upcoming years. I hope that, as of June 9, I and Romanian voters like me will get more insight into what our leaders are thinking when it comes to our future and our future role in the continent.

*Zócalo columnist and democracy editor Joe Mathews is a founder of Democracy International, and sits on the Global Forum on Modern Direct Democracy’s supervisory committee.


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